“Coffee With…” is an ongoing series that features stories and advice from female founders. The interviews are conversations we actually had over lattes and are edited for length and clarity.
Erika Geraerts knows how to stay busy. This 27 year old from Melbourne, Australia started her first company with two friends in September 2013 called Willow & Blake, a copywriting and editorial agency. The agency was followed by Little Big Sugar Salt, a cafe in Melbourne, and Frank Body, a skincare and beauty company best known for their scrub made of coffee grounds. Geraerts doesn't shy away from exploring the unknown as each business is remarkably different. Their individual successes, however, are not coincidental. It was Willow & Blake's witty copywriting, paired with cheeky images of women and men using the coffee scrub, that propelled the Frank Body brand to stardom on Instagram. Currently the brand has 690K followers and retail partnerships with Urban Outfitters and Asos. Frank Body has been fully self-funded to date, and while they haven't disclosed 2016 revenue, the 2015 figure was more than $20 million.
Six months ago Geraerts moved on from both Willow & Blake and Frank Body to make time for new projects, such as Fluffhorse, which Geraerts describes as a publishing company "of sorts." Geraerts and I got coffee when we were both in New York at the Brooklyn based Sweatshop. We discussed how she got started, Frank Body's Instagram catastrophe and her advice on how to stay sane while running multiple businesses.
Julie Sygiel: Did you always know you wanted to do a lot of different things? Which one came first?
Erika Geraerts: I don’t think I started out intending to run several businesses but now I can’t imagine only working on one brand. I studied journalism in college and worked at a marketing agency for two years after school. I loved it, but after awhile started to get an itch to go and do my own thing. So my friends Bree (Johnson), Jess (Hatzis), and I decided to build a website. We wanted to write profile pieces that didn’t feel too high brow or low brow, that didn’t alienate any reader, and that people could connect with and understand. So we started Willow and Blake as an online platform where we could publish editorial pieces on people. They could either be well known or they could just be friends in our lives that no one knew about. Then we started getting freelance writing requests from people who had seen the website, which was awesome. We thought, “We’ve got all this attention for Willow and Blake, maybe we can spin the business model and turn it into an agency.”
I hadn’t saved up any money at all when I quit my job. We just said, “Let’s all try and work really hard.” I remember contacting any of my Facebook friends who I knew had a business and saying that I would write for them for free. Over the years we built the business up and found our specialty to be a content agency where we’d start with developing a voice for brands and then we’d roll it out across their marketing collateral. That could be website copy, it could be packaging copy, it could be social media… anywhere that you can apply words, that’s where we were.
Willow and Blake had been running for a couple years when we came up with this idea for Frank Body. We were spending so much time on social media for other brands that we wanted to do something for ourselves. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we weren’t restricted by a budget from a client or their nerves about wanting to not take risky strategies.” And it was just by chance that my business partner Steve (Rowley) came across the idea of the coffee scrub because he owns several cafes in Melbourne and people had been coming in asking for the leftover coffee grounds. They told him it was great as an exfoliator and that they were using it to get rid of things like cellulite and stretch marks. We found that lots of people were making it at home, but no brands were selling it online and using social to market it. So for Bree, Jess and I, it was a brand challenge. We wanted to see how far we could push a brand’s voice. Then for the boys, Alex (Boffa) and Steve, it was a challenge for them to develop a new ecommerce model.
Sygiel: I read that Frank Body built its business on Instagram. What was that like in the beginning?
Geraerts: Our social strategy when we first launched Frank Body was really aggressive and we were posting like every hour on the hour and we had a lot more risky content. We were posting a lot of pictures of babes, some of them without tops on or without pants. It was very cheeky and Frank as a hypothetical guy was commenting on the photos in a satirical way. Within maybe a month we had built up 10,000 followers. Obviously Instagram has strict guidelines on censorship and what you can post and we woke up one morning and the account just wasn’t there anymore because it had been deleted. We freaked out. We tried to get in contact with Instagram, but there was nothing we could do. We learned our lesson the hard way, but thank God it was 10,000 followers and not 600,000. So since then we’ve been very careful. I think it was for the best in the end because it forced us to be more clever with the new account.
Sygiel: How did you manage to work in multiple companies at once?
Geraerts: When I “go to work,” there are always lots of different emails from different people about different things. That’s just normal for me. One thing I tell people though is that there will always be times when you feel like a crazy person. You can’t do it all. I have those days quite often, but I’ve realized the importance of routine. I’m a creature of habit and I eat breakfast at the cafe almost every morning.
Sygiel: With so many businesses running at once, how do you make time for yourself?
Geraerts: I think it’s so important, but you have to be ready for it. I went through a good couple of years where I was all work and ignored a lot of friends. I’d catch up with people for coffee and my brain would still be at work. I knew they could tell as well because sometimes they would say, “You’re not here Erica, you’re not really listening.” That really upset me because I never wanted it to be that way. So I realized that I needed to block off time where I did things for myself and didn’t constantly feel like I should be somewhere else.
Sygiel: I remember when we were rebranding from Sexy Period to Dear Kate and there was about a year when we were actively trying to find a new name before settling on Dear Kate. It consumed my mental space and I remember hanging out with friends all afternoon one Saturday. I turned our entire time together into a company name brainstorming session. When I got home, I was like, “Wait, did we talk about anything else at all?” I realized, “Wow, I can’t turn it off." and I didn’t want to be that person.
Geraerts: My family has been really great because when I go see them I tell them, “I don’t want to talk about work.” I’m there all day talking to other people about work, and when I see my family, I actually just want to talk about the simple, normal things.
Sygiel: Tell me more about your new book project. Fluffhorse is a publishing company?
Geraerts: Yes, of sorts. "Me Too" was the first book released under the Fluffhouse name and we just signed a publishing deal for it with Walker Books which means it will be distributed in February 2018. The story in the book is about two little friends discussing the someones they want to meet when they grow up. We like to say that it's a book about discovering what you want by realizing what you have.
Sygiel: Were there any things you didn't anticipate before starting the first business?
Geraerts: I didn’t anticipate that things are going to get hard at some point. I never expected how hard managing a staff would be, especially when you don’t have experience and when you’re the same age. You can read so many different business books, but this shit can’t be taught. You have to go through it and experience the highs and lows yourself. There’s never one point you will reach where you say, “OK, I'm successful and that’s it” because you’ll always set another goal for yourself. There’s never a point where you nail being a boss or you nail meeting deadlines. It’s just up and down and I think you just have to accept that there will be good days and bad days, and that’s the ride of business and life.
Julie Sygiel, Contributor